Ire and Loathing in Peterborough

Stanground. Shit. I’m still only in Stanground. That doesn’t have the same ring to it as Saigon does it? In a hot, stuffy hotel on a road of unresting traffic, where the bangs are from the occasional unseasonable firework rather than a grenade. I’d rather be in Saigon though. I’d rather be anywhere than this loathsome place.

Until recently, I’d worked in Stoke council’s benefits office for several years. While not top of the class so to speak, it seemed reasonable to assume I had at least a fair grasp of what was required.

So when Stoke became too unpleasant a place to work, I applied for a similar job at Peterborough. This would be working from home, with, they assured me, only occasional attendance at their offices in Peterborough for training etc. This seemed reasonable, so when they offered me the job, I accepted with alacrity.

Things went wrong immediately. Never mind the past, Peterborough is a foreign country, they do things very differently there. I can appreciate the need for accuracy, but they don’t distinguish between a typo on a letter and a serious financial error. They also have their own incomprehensible interpretation of the rules, and a completely different IT system to Stoke’s. I’d been there less than three days and they had a go at me for not picking things up quickly enough! And this was after the promised training didn’t materialise.

The occasional attendances became anything but. Another summons, and I again found myself away from home, in a hotel room in a town I loathe. I had to keep my sanity and temper somehow, so as I’d done on previous visits, I went for a drive after escaping the humiliations of the office. Along the A47 to Guyhirne, ruler straight and level for mile after mile. All I had to do was rest my hands lightly on the wheel as tarmac and road lines vanished away towards the horizon, and Norfolk. Norwich 75 the sign says. What an appealing thought to just stay on the road and keep going: Wisbech, Kings Lynn, Dereham, Norwich, Great Yarmouth.

At Guyhirne I turned off, away from the dense, unyielding line of thundering trucks onto a much quieter road. Still straight, but rougher, with frequent fairground bounces where it had subsided. Again, the huge fields and skies, the tent grey today with scarcely any flash of blue to cheer up this prisoner. In this duller light, the skies seemed even larger. The whole landscape took on a bleaker air… That’s not really the right word as it wasn’t oppressive or despairing. My favourite landscape is that of the northern fells and moors, and I prefer them under grey skies: the place acquires an even deeper presence.

After a few minutes, I passed Murrow, which I remembered from last time as I tried to find the site of the station. The only hint is a road called Station Avenue although this didn’t lead to the station. In fact I think there were two stations as two railways met here at one time. Surprising for such a little place out in the Fens. The Midland & Great Northern ran east-west and the Great Northern & Great Eastern ran north-south. The former closed in 1959 and the latter as late as 1982, though the station closed much earlier.

Several miles later and I passed the long closed railway at French Drove. I’d driven past here last time and noticed a narrow, overgrown lane running parallel to the trackbed. I only walked a short way down it then, to photo the two concrete signal posts that still stood. This time, I braved it in the car. As well as narrow, it was pitted and potholed and had the tallest grass I’ve even seen growing along the middle of a road. How long had it been since someone had driven along here, I thought, and how long would it be before someone did again?

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I noticed another lane coming in on the right, then saw a shape emerge from the undergrowth: a large hare. Before I could stop and reach for my camera, he was off in a flash of white tail at surprising speed before vanishing back into the long grass with a rustling crash. I couldn’t believe my luck. I’ve seen many rabbits, but few hares: this was probably only the third time I’ve seen one, and the closest too.

It was quiet. Very quiet. The sort of deep, beautiful silence I often yearn for, and that it is so difficult to obtain. From nowhere, a skylark started to sing, and more distantly, a yellowhammer requested his usual snack of bread and no cheese. There was a narrow but dense band of trees on my left, and a field of oil seed rape to my right. Some of this had escaped the field and was growing by the road, amongst the long grass and cow parsley. I was suddenly a very very long way from anywhere, and it suited me fine. I even didn’t mind being away from home, and all the anger and impotent rage faded. It didn’t just fade, it vanished completely. Enjoy the silence. I did, and let it permeate right into me, flowing through me along with blood, part of it. Part of me.

A little further along the road and the trees closed in on both sides. And then something strange: a rough clearing to the left, partly blocked by an improvised “wall” of earth and gravel, and at the far end of it, a CCTV camera. Someone obviously does come here then. Fly tippers perhaps, even out here. Dirty bastards.

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After this brief adventure, it was a relief to be back on a proper road. I took a circular return to the hotel, reluctant to head straight back. At Thorney, I crossed the A47 and carried on into the village. The Midland & Great Northern Railway had a station here, but the site has disappeared under new housing. I was pleased to see some reminder though: by the road close to the site a pair of level crossing gates. Probably not original, but good to see all the same. The church was impressive, with a large pale stone frontage with many carvings. I believe it was a former abbey church, like the cathedral at Peterborough. There was another impressive building nearby, a tall tower of the same stone that can be seen from several miles away. I’ve no idea what it is.

The road, after a couple of sharp turns, ran straight across the fen. That strange, man-made landscape where everything is straight, angular. There were several pill boxes along here, and I wondered just what they were supposed to defend. I had visions of Dad’s Army manning them. The road soon crossed the river Nene, adjacent to large sluice gates and close to the delightfully named Dog-in-a-Doublet farm. After the olde worlde charme of Thorney, Whittlesey was a dump. Dominated by the chimney of a brick works and three huge wind turbines. And I mean huge. This was the closest I’d ever been to one. I know many find them ugly, and I’d seen numerous placards today protesting against them. I’ve found them elegant, and this close pass did not diminish this.

Back into Peterborough, and the road crossed what looked like a large new development, on a greenfield site. There were many “for sale” boards and others proclaiming “development opportunities”, while the road was a near deserted dual carriageway. There’s clearly money here. A sharper contrast with home wasn’t possible.

The next day brought more humiliations. Safe to say that my resentment and anger grew and I could hardly wait to flee onto the road again. Or better still, home. It was my apprentice moment: Lord Sugar will see you now. And yes, I got fired. Not up to the job apparently. Never mind that I had done it at Stoke for over ten years, or that the statistics they used to prove my error rate were based on a vanishingly small sample. In a month when I had worked on over 200 cases, they use less than 5% of them to convict me. I love a fair trial. I was at least spared the light in the face or being yelled at by a leather coated Von Heseltine.

After leaving for the day, I went to French Drove again. I parked beside the New South Eau, one of the many straightened water courses round there, that runs between two fields lush with cereal crops. A short way off was a metal bridge that once carried the Great Northern & Great Eastern railway that closed 1982. Apart from a short piece of embankment, the bridge was the only trace. I recalled the phrase used by railway people to describe track, ballast, sleepers etc: the permanent way. I suppose it must have seemed that way once.

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While my fascination with this country remains, I missed the hills of home. While most landscapes are man-made to some extent, this one is more so: drained marshes with waterways straightened and enclosed in dykes. Though it has a weird beauty all its own, it’s still artificial. As I stood there in the late evening sun, I wondered what it had been like before the fens were drained and the land enclosed, when places like Ely and Crowland were islands. I just couldn’t picture it.

And so to the end. Two more days working at home, where I made sure I did as little as possible, then the last journey over there. I received a terse email on the second day, advising me I would receive an “exit interview” when I arrived. What fun, I thought, just what I want after a two and half hour drive on awful roads. As I pulled into the car park, I saw the manager leaving for lunch. She didn’t see me. After I’d struggled up the stairs with the PC and monitor, someone told me the manager would be back soon. Ah, so I’m expected to wait am I? I don’t think so. I dumped the box and left.

In contrast with most of the journey, the road out of Peterborough is a good dual carriageway. I must admit I do like driving fast along such roads, especially with roof and windows open, and I did so then. The rushing air and my car’s smart acceleration was exhilarating. While that lasted I was able to park my anxieties. And I did the same after I got home. There would be plenty of time to worry in the next few days and weeks. But not tonight. Tonight I was going to relax.

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